Studying abroad for an extended period of time – usually a semester or a year – can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, but it can also be terrifying. How will you call home once you arrive? Will your mobile bill skyrocket with roaming charges? And is there any way you can text your friends back home?
Fortunately, with modern technology, going abroad doesn’t mean you have to drop off the grid completely. Depending on your phone and carrier, there are ways to avoid exorbitant charges and to still have access to local calling, texting, and data services. You can even send text messages, make calls, or video chat back home for free.
Trust me, being able to contact your friends and family back home as if you never left is a great thing. Especially if you are in a country with a different culture and a different language, having a connection back home can be extremely important. So let’s look at some of the ways that you can keep that line of communication open.
Cancel Or Suspend Your Current Service
If you’re currently bound to a contract with a wireless carrier like AT&T or Verizon, this part isn’t going to be fun for you, but it’s necessary. You see, if you can’t just get up and leave for months without alerting your carrier – they’ll keep charging you for the service you’re not using, and you don’t want that. Unfortunately, the alternatives aren’t very great, mostly because they want you to use their ridiculously expensive international service.
For AT&T, you have to contact customer service and ask for a Reduced Rate Suspension. This will lower your monthly payment to $9.99 and suspend all service on your phone. You can only do this for up to 6 months, so if you’re studying abroad for more than one semester, this probably won’t suit your needs. Also, your contract will be extended for every month that your service is suspended.
For Verizon, you can suspend your service for no cost for up to 90 days. You can do this twice a year, so up to 180 days (6 months) total. The same restrictions apply here: your upgrade eligibility will be extended and you can’t suspend for more than 6 months.
Of course, your best option is always to call your carrier’s customer service line and ask them what they can do for you. And in the future, don’t sign a two-year contract. We have 10 reasons you should switch to an MVNO. You can do it easily in three simple steps, and you can save hundreds of dollars.
If you’re not on a two-year contract, congratulations! Just quit renewing whatever monthly service you’ve been using.
Unlock Your Phone
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about unlocking your phone, and I’ve met many people who thought their phone was already unlocked when it wasn’t, or that their phone couldn’t be unlocked at all.
The truth is, your phone can be carrier-unlocked. If you bought it unlocked, like the Nexus 4 from the Play Store, then congratulations! However, if you bought it from a carrier, it is probably locked to that carrier.
Unfortunately for Verizon and Sprint users, your phones run on the CDMA network, not GSM, which means they probably won’t work in the rest of the world. Some of their phones are “world phones” and have a SIM card slot, in which case they work like GSM phones, but it’s more likely that they’re locked to their specific carriers. You may want to look into a cheap off-contract phone.
If you’re an AT&T or T-Mobile customer, you’re lucky, because they use GSM phones like the rest of the world. If you’ve been on contract for a while, as in more than 90 days, your carrier will probably unlock it for you. Just call them and ask for the unlock code. They’ll need your IMEI number — a unique identifier for your device — and then they’ll give you a code specifically for your device. Once you pop in your new SIM card, it’ll prompt you for the code. After it’s entered, your device is unlocked.
If you just recently bought a device or your carrier refuses to unlock it for some other reason, you can still get it unlocked through services like cellunlocker.net. Most of these services will charge $10-$40 for a code, but compared to buying a completely new phone to use while abroad, that’s not bad.
Find A Local SIM
If you use your existing SIM card in a foreign country, you run the risk of being charged international fees. Depending on how long you’ll be away from home, it’s probably best to bring it with you but remove it from your phone and depend on WiFi connectivity when you first arrive.
There are such things as international SIM cards, but those are expensive and often meant for people who are constantly hopping from country to country. The cheapest option for a student living in one country for a few months is to buy a local SIM card. Unfortunately, the SIM card options vary from country to country, so you’re best off researching whatever country you will be going to and finding a cheap prepaid plan.
What kind of plan you need depends on how much you plan to use your phone and if you have access to WiFi. If you’re a heavy smartphone user and will have limited access to WiFi, you’ll want to find a plan with unlimited talk, text, and at least 2 GB or 3 GB of data per month. For instance, in Sweden, Comviq offers a the Fastpris plan (unlimited talk and text in Sweden and 3 GB of data) for 245 SEK per month, which is about US$38. This is actually a much better offer than many of the prepaid plans in the US. They also offer a 145 SEK plan that is the same but with only 200 MB of data for those who don’t use much data or who have constant access to WiFi.
Other countries offer similar plans. For instance, in the UK, 3 has an All-In-One plan add-on for £15 (US$24) that includes unlimited data, 3000 texts, and 300 minutes, or you could get the £10 add-on that offers the 100 minutes, 3000 texts, but with only 500 MB of data.
If you’re travelling to a country where you don’t speak the language, Google Translate is your friend. Try visiting the Google website for your chosen country (i.e. Google.es for Spain, Google.fr for France, etc.) and searching for prepaid plans. If you’re using Chrome as your Web browser, it will even automatically translate any websites you visit. It’s far from perfect, but it should be enough to help you get an idea of what plans are offered.
Also, take note of what kind of SIM card your phone accepts. Most older phones only accept a standard SIM, newer phones use Micro-SIM, and so far, only the iPhone 5, 5S, 5C and Moto X use Nano-SIM. If you buy a SIM card from a carrier, it is very likely a standard SIM card with the ability to be popped out into a Micro-SIM. However, Nano-SIMs are harder to come by, and you may have to specifically request one from the carrier. Pictured above is a standard SIM with a Micro-SIM that is able to be popped out from the center.
Find A Messaging Service
The easiest way to keep in touch is to use whatever service your friends and family are already using. For a lot of people, that’s Facebook. The Facebook Messenger app makes it just as easy to message someone as it would be to send them a text message, plus you can see if they’ve read it and use all those adorable stickers. But if your friends are on Whatsapp, Viber or Skype, use whatever will be most convenient for you.
Something you will want to set up before leaving, though, is Google Voice. Since it is only available for US users, you should configure before leaving to go abroad, since it’ll need a text message confirmation from your American number. However, once it’s set up, you can use it from your phone or any browser to send text messages back home and make calls (from your computer).
On a phone, Google Voice allows for texts sent over your data network or WiFi, but the calls go through your regular phone network, so you won’t be able to make calls home. You also won’t be able to make calls from voice.google.com, although you can send text messages. Actually, you can only make calls back home for free by using Google Hangouts — not the phone version, just the browser version accessible through Gmail or Google Plus. Type in any American phone number and it will call over your WiFi connection using your Google Voice number, and nobody has to pay anything. Yes, I know that it’s confusing, and I hope that soon Google will unify Voice and Hangouts and all their messaging services into one simple app. But for now, this is what we’re stuck with.
The Internet is pretty amazing. We can move thousands of miles across the globe and still stay in contact with all our loved ones back home. Travelling and studying abroad is an incredible experience, but being able to contact your friends and family back home is a comforting reassurance when you’re in an unfamiliar place.
And since you’re now a world traveller, don’t forget to check out our 8 tips for travelling with your tech.
Do you have any other tips for communicating across borders? What countries will you be venturing to this semester? Let us know in the comments.